Terrorism and “ooh that’s interesting”

Reading the various commentary pieces about Christmas Day’s attempted terrorist attack it seems blindingly obvious that tightening existing systems and reinforcing existing approaches is unlikely to help us become safer. David Brooks in an interesting piece in The New York Times does a good job of exposing why current thinking doesn’t work but he fails to go the next step and imagine new ways that might work better. I reckon the social web holds potential to at least partly help.

I have written elsewhere about the collective “ooh that’s interesting” principle that I think is the most fascinating aspect of our new web technologies. Our ability to notice things is individually enhanced because, even if it is only Twitter, we have somewhere to write, somewhere to express ourselves, somewhere to “be interesting”. If we have done a good job then other people will go “ooh that’s interesting” and amplify or comment on our signal making it less weak. If enough people notice more, write more and comment more then our collective ability to know what is going on and do something about it increases.

This is true in so many situations but seems particularly so when dealing with the unpredictability of terrorism. Imagine if people who knew the terrorist, like is Dad, had expressed their concerns online, imagine if someone who read that picked up on the fact that the guy was flying on this particular flight. If it turns out to be true that the terrorist had managed to circumvent security in Amsterdam when boarding the plane, imagine those who saw this had tweeted it. Imagine passengers on the plane had been reading Twitter just before take off and noticed a reference to their flight number and became suspicious.

Yes all of this could be misapplied and one could easily imagine scenarios where it led to panic and possibly injustice. But even if we don’t want to rely on citizens being brave enough to finally take the action required to prevent the next atrocity don’t we have it within our grasp to weed the weak signals from the strong ones? To work out well enough who we trust and what is real quickly enough to at least help the authorities do the right thing?

24 thoughts on “Terrorism and “ooh that’s interesting””

  1. I’d read up on mobs in the UK from around the 17th to 19th Century before you take that idea too far! In the modern age look at the consequence of national newspapers exposing pedophiles. I agree we need to use the networks available through social computing, but that has to be about anticipatory awareness, not specific awareness. I think that includes allowing people to express concern through twitter etc. A lot of people will not express concern to an individual but might be happy to tweet something.

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  2. I am glad you picked up on this post Dave, I was thinking of you as I wrote it. I almost gave SenseMaker a plug but wasn’t sure how applicable it was to this situation.I hear what you are saying about mobs but am not clear what you mean about the difference between anticipatory and specific awareness. Surely once patterns of concern become apparent something needs to be done. I had originally suggested some sort of connection between the emerging signal and those officially charged with doing something in these circumstances, a demarkation between noticing and doing something, but I just couldn’t see it working.I am also unsure still as to whether mob tendencies are inherent in human nature or just a result of having been treated like children for too long!

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  3. The history of mobs would indicate that there are inherent in the human condition and that would match up with what we know about the way the brain is activated. Its also the case that anti-terrorism has been manipulated for political purposes. Look at the work of the Cecils and the Popish Plot and the general manipulation of the mob.You raise an interesting question on alerts. Basically I think the solution is human sensor networks (report everything anomalous) with integrative and alert mechanisms based on synthesis. I’m going to blog on this in more detail towards the end of the week (and yes SenseMaker™ was designed around this)

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  4. Yes mob is one of those words like mass (as in media) that rarely do justice to the facts. I am also not convinced that historical consistency necessarily precludes progress in these matters!It’s all about signal and noise and not squashing weak signals – as you more than anyone else knows.We should try again for that coffee.

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  5. Euan: One recurrent suggestion of a "fix" in the discussion ensuing from the foiling of the undie-bomber (sorry to lower the tone but this is an irresistible shorthand) – who by the way was reported to the US embassy by his own dad, a former Nigerian minister – is that profiling is the only answer. I watched a fascinating – and a trifle disturbing – debate on BBC1 this (Sunday) morning about whether we are all too soft on Islamic extremism. It is sadly evident that much profiling will end up being racist and narrowly driven by questionable considerations such as "not like me so must be evil". The profiling lists/ criteria are inflexible and just like DNA databases in the UK – or Hotel California if you like – it is easier to get in but not to get out. How is that useful for building openness and trust in a society which really is how such violence and extremism will be prevented from blowing up? I have no answers but I am reluctant to let the mob do the job too.

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  6. Is profiling the mob or is it "the system" labelling people? I am not suggesting that we leave everything to individuals to deal with but that we take more collective responsibility for noticing stuff and saying that we have. A twitter response pointed to this interesting article about the Israeli approach. As he says no one cares if the person is black white or anything in between but that they are acting oddly.

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  7. To get around the confusion behind ‘anticipatory’ and ‘specific’ awareness, perhaps Dave can help us with a use case? I believe I understand the difference, but could be mistaken. Prof. Leon Fuerth at George Washington University is doing some interesting investigation into the notion of ‘anticipatory governance,’ taking this idea more broadly and applying it to a national government. Anticipatory here relates to a rejection of proactive, ‘principle-based’ executions of national security policy in favor of a sensing awareness leading to (hopefully) pragmatic policies. http://www.forwardengagement.org/

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  8. Euan: I do not think the two – mob and system – are separate. To some extent, systems evolve from collective wisdom. How else is it that the term "Islamic terrorism" became so popular but nobody called the IRA "Christian terrorists"? Two female friends of mine, both single, one Indian and one Jewish but both remarkably fair with dark features hence very "Arabic", routinely get singled out for frisking. They both travel a lot on work so in their case it is usually ennui and exhaustion rather than nervousness. After all whether one is behaving suspiciously because one is a bomber or because one is a first-time/ nervous flier is a qualitative judgment, is it not?Even so, I should like to see the stats related to the people who are excluded from airports and flying by the Israelified process. Is that data public?

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  9. Interesting link John – thanks.Don’t know about that data Shefaly but then I haven’t seen any data on the attempts foiled by the US approach either.

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  10. Agree on the coffee Euan, or we can make it a walk, I am planning the RIdgeway in stages over the next month.John, its a bit complex to answer in a comment blog. However at a high level anticipatory awareness approaches focus on large human sensor networks enabling focus of agencies on emergent issues or problems. The White House suggestion box scheme is an examples of a " specific" approaches and it results in too many ideas, too much disappointment and a dissipation of government effort. What would be better there is the day to day micro-narratives of fear, frustration and hope from which emergent themes could result in policy shifts. The same applies to counter terrorism, we need human sensor networks looking at patterns of activity to create different alert responses.Profiling is a more complex issue with ethical as well as practical implications. In practice the Israeli response is very dependent on personal interviews. Trained people are a lot better at this than computers.

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  11. I’m glad the tweet appeared just as I checked the twitter stream. What a very interesting and intentional conversation.I thought it might be helpful to have a read of something I found this morning. It’s a CIA Report on "What we have learned from the financial crisis." The interesting part are the solutions and recommendations. I found it heartening that the CIA is seeing the same things that many involved with using the internet for learning and creating new knowledge. http://ilnk.me/CIA(on twitter @ToughloveforX )

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  12. I’m in favor of a radically individualist approach. It’s the only way, I think, to build enough global trust to keep the fires of tribalism and hatred at bay in the places where they now ignite.Opportunities for individuals to begin developing a global brand/reputation can and should begin _very_ early. As bandwidth seeps into even the most backward areas, kids will have opportunities to engage with ideas and games that can expose them to the best (and most subversive to the jihadists) ideas of the West. Namely, that there is a universal code of civilization based on the sovereignty of the individual – that each person is owner by right of his or her own life. The first step in the ladder of opportunities from civil society in the West can be access to microscholarships to build understanding of such heretical ideas – as well as to build useful skills in online markets. Access to microjobs (on the Samasource and TxtEagle precedents), vouchers for eHealthcare, and microfinance can also flow to those who do the most to understand and live in accord with the entrepreneurial precepts of global markets. Further opportunities could go to those who informally spread awareness in their peer groups of the new ways – and bring them into successful engagement with the ideas and opportunities online.As the kids grow up, the karma points (or "Freedompoints," as outlined at Openworld.com) earned by these groups could be converted into benefits for entire village, in proportion to their moves to equalize learning opportunities for women and otherwise gain freedom from feudal and theocratic rulers.And when the individuals who have earned reputations by this means do travel internationally, their track records could be taken into account in the form of increased respect from and swifter passage through the immigration bureaucracies. As other (less fortunate) passengers see the authorities of the West recognizing people as individuals, it may lead to an increased receptiveness on their part to ensure their younger relatives make the most of the West’s offers to spread grassroots understanding of its values and access to entrepreneurial opportunities on the web that predatory rulers in their home countries deny.Best,Mark FrazierOpenworld.com @openworld @peerlearning

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  13. don’t we have it within our grasp to weed the weak signals from the strong ones? Some people are good at this .. combine that with intelligent training about things like the focus, rhythm and patterns of questions and responses, and I believe you will have a much better ability to protect a society than making everyone take off their shoes, give up >100 ml toothpaste tubes and cologne bottles, and mutter meekly when snarled at by a poorly-trained security attendant.IMO, the same rationale (some level of skill, a clear purpose, available context, etc.) applies with respect to the use of social tools online, and I expect we will see more use cases appear as the tools and dynamics weave their way inexorably into our daily lives.

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  14. Radical individualism arguably got us into most of the current messes we are in. A greater understanding of the need for connections and trust in networks is I think key to moving forwards.

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  15. Very interesting discussion. Based on history I’m not sure this last point by Dave is true "Tribes and Clans have more stability and inhibitors on violence than societies based on individualism." Tribes and clans often use violence to maintain order and are often in a perpetual state of conflict or near conflict with other tribes. What there might be less of is uncontrolled/unsanctioned violence within the clan. Not sure how helpful this is in reducing terrorism though.Fostering a greater sense of collaboration and individual contribution to collective responsibility would clearly be helpful though since reliance soley on others or on the authorities doesn’t seem to be working.

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  16. I’d say this is unlikely to work, because airports are social spaces which have been organised and calibrated to make it quite hard for people to function intuitively. We’re obliged to show up hours early, confined, then subjected to procedures by uniformed officials, some of which can be quite invasive. Additionally, we are given cognitive messages that encourage is to rationalise our fears: that air travel is dangerous (when it’s safer than an automobile) and we are under threat of terrorism. Under these circumstances, almost everybody will feel at least a low-level background anxiety . The chances of an individual being discriminating are slim, of the collective picking up and amplifying a true positive signal are just about nil.

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  17. So you don’t have your phone with you in airports, you don’t use Twitter, and you wouldn’t pay any attention to me tweeting from the same airport that I had noticed something odd?Or is it just "other people" that have been so conditioned by the airport to stop thinking ……?

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  18. In response to Ian. I think if you look that there is violence between clans/tribes but less within. They have a slightly better record than the nation state in respect of both external and internal violence. If you look at most terrorists leaders, they are middle class, isolated from their clans etc. educated in a western environment.

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